By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008
OXFORD, Miss., Sept. 26 -- John McCain and Barack Obama came to their first debate with clear missions. McCain's was to paint his rival as naive and inexperienced, Obama's was both to prove McCain wrong on that front and to tag his rival as a participant in eight years of failed Bush administration policies at home and abroad.
Each rose to the challenge here Friday night, forcefully scoring points on one another, sparkling at times, but neither emerged as the obvious winner except perhaps to their partisans. There were good exchanges but few big moments of the kind that can change a presidential race.
With the country facing an unresolved financial crisis as big as any since the Great Depression and the two candidates running in a highly competitive race for the White House, this was obviously a debate with enormously high stakes for both McCain and Obama. By the time it was over, it was evident just how large the differences were between them on many of the biggest national security issues that will await the next president -- and some domestic ones as well.
After the tumult of the week in Washington and on Wall Street, it was questionable whether any event could compete in terms of drama, excitement and possibly significance. McCain's high-risk gamble of suspending most campaign activity and returning to Washington to inject himself into negotiations over an economic rescue package threatened either to delay the debate or at a minimum overshadow it.
For a time, it looked like neither was ready to engage the other. They wandered sometimes aimlessly through the first 30 minutes of the 90-minute session, which dealt not only with the financial crisis that threatens the economy -- and nearly scuttled the debate when McCain initially said they should stay in Washington to deal with it -- but also with domestic issues, including budgetary earmarks, tax cuts and health care.
But when the debate turned to the announced topic -- foreign policy and national security -- they came alive. Their exchanges were lively, pointed and revealing. They disagreed over who was right about Iraq and what it will take to end that conflict satisfactorily. Obama said McCain was wrong on the invasion, McCain said Obama was wrong about the surge.
They argued over Afghanistan and who knew better how to deal with the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Obama said McCain and Bush had let Afghanistan slip backward because of their focus on Iraq. McCain said that the same surge policy he supported in Iraq is what will put Afghanistan right.
They squabbled over how to prod Pakistan to deal with terrorist breeding grounds inside its borders. Obama said the United States had wrongly coddled the government of former president Pervez Musharraf, while McCain said Obama does not understand that Pakistan was a failed state when the former general took power.
They got sharp with one another over talking to Iran. Obama defended his view that the United States should be willing to talk directly with Iranian leaders, but McCain mocked his rival as he imagined how a conversation between Obama and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might go.
"So let me get this right. We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, 'We're going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,' and we say, 'No, you're not'? Oh, please!"
But Obama argued that while McCain has resisted talks, many others have supported them and that isolating dangerous nations, as he said Bush has done, has only made things worse.
McCain gained strength as the debate wore on, pressing his argument that Obama is naive and inexperienced and doesn't understand a dangerous world. "There are some advantages to experience, and knowledge, and judgment," he said. "And I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas."
But Obama did not shrink from the foreign policy debate, arguing that on Iraq and Afghanistan, his judgment was superior to McCain's. "Over the last eight years," he said, "this administration, along with Senator McCain, have been solely focused on Iraq. That has been their priority. That has been where all our resources have gone. In the meantime, bin Laden is still out there. He is not captured. He is not killed. Al-Qaeda is resurgent.
The two broke no new ground on the most topical issue, the financial rescue package under negotiation in Washington. Both were hesitant to be pinned down on the details of the emerging bill, only arguing that something must be done and restating past conditions.
Nor would they allow moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS to get them to acknowledge that the big rescue package likely will clip the wings of the next president. Neither would state with any specificity what they might have to give up from their domestic agendas.
Nor was their debate over earmarks and federal spending particularly enlightening. McCain brandished his credentials as someone who would attack spending. Obama said McCain's approach amounted to a hatchet when a scalpel was more appropriate.
Obama seemed to hit his stride earlier than McCain, particularly in the early stages of the debate that dealt with the financial crisis and domestic issues, arguing that his rival was nothing more than an extension of eight years of policies that the Democratic nominee said had harmed the country.
The first of three presidential debates came amid conflicting poll results that show anything from a very competitive race between Obama and McCain to a widening advantage for the Democratic nominee. Regardless of the polls, it came at a moment of perceived struggle for McCain and for that reason was seen as a critical opportunity for him to reassert himself.
The debate's subject matter favored McCain, given his long experience in national security matters and divided public sentiment about Obama's credentials to serve as commander in chief. Obama advisers, however, believed that it provided an opportunity for their candidate to dispose of the readiness question and challenge McCain on his perceived turf.
Events proved helpful to Obama, however, as there was no way to avoid economic issues even in a foreign policy debate. Turmoil in financial and credit markets pushed the economy into an even more dominant position in the voters' agenda and widened Obama's advantage as the candidate who is perceived to be more capable of dealing with it.
Partisans on both sides saw bright spots and ultimate success for their candidate. But it's likely that this race will continue as it has. Both accomplished much of what they hoped to do, without any serious mistakes. Voters likely saw attractive qualities in each of them.
So round one will give way to round two and perhaps a clearer outcome. But as with much of the rest of this presidential race, these are two well-matched candidates, and each has something to say.